THEY HAVE NO POWER
The phrase is inked on a crewneck sweatshirt limply hung over a chair. In the dim, congested basement of Mitchell Seymour’s Uptown apartment, the motto means less than the Precambrian water heater to the shirt’s right or the dozen uncapped spray paint cans to its left. But removed from this (or any other) context, “THEY HAVE NO POWER” is just vague enough to embolden Seymour and his lifelong collaborator Caleb Hinz with the frenetic abandon that drives their power-pop band the Happy Children.
“‘They’ can be any opposing force,” Hinz explains, artily clad in a hand-painted T-shirt. “We used to have mice here, and my cats would catch them at night but not kill them. So I had to kill all these mice every night, and I was afraid to touch them, but I just kept saying to myself, ‘They have no power over me.’”
“It’s totally political, too,” he assures me.
Maybe that seems absurd. Maybe that’s the point. The Happy Children were born from the DIY anti-politics of Hinz’s clothing brand Normal Parents, which he runs out of Seymour’s basement. Basements are a good metaphor for the subconscious. Bands are a good metaphor for family. Journalists are underpaid amateur psychoanalysts. And so I begin to plumb for answers.
Most of us only realize how weird our parents are after we grow up, but Hinz had the benefit of making this discovery at a young age. His mom and dad split up and his family splintered into a dozen sub-families, and the experience has, on some level, driven him to reject any oversimplified ideas of normalcy. Is that childhood experience the engine driving the Happy Children’s familial vibe?
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a comment on the nuclear family, but a lot of ideas I have are inspired by my weird family,” Hinz says. “It feels gross and freaky, but it’s fun.”
I probe a layer deeper. What’s the relationship behind those baldly ironic names: “Normal Parents” and “Happy Children”? Is this a commentary on the unrealistic expectations of American values? A middle finger to the idea of sitcom suburbia?
“You’re really highlighting my neurosis here,” Hinz says with an apprehensive laugh. “You should quit your job and just be the Happy Children’s therapist.”
The band’s preferred form of therapy is more kinetic. Instead of lounging on a shrink’s couch, they work out their phobias and ennui in explosive house shows, funneling their anxieties into jumpy, sprawling jams that unlock the same animalistic catharsis in their fans. They leave the stage brined with sweat, one set closer to self-actualization.
“Each individual person should feel that it’s OK to be fuckin’ weird and not fit into any kind of normal family role,” Seymour says. “It’s nice to focus as much energy as I can on trying to feel good and be good and not be fucked up. Everybody feels fucked up.”
We head upstairs to Seymour’s back deck, a tilted, screened-in porch where vines and sunlight vie for dominion. Hinz and Seymour sink into an old sofa across from me, Hinz jabbing at a scab on his elbow with a goofy grin.
The two bandmates met in high school at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. Hinz went off to Olympia, Washington, for college, and a year later, Seymour joined him. But Olympia struck them as a deadbeat town. Both felt a vacuum of creativity, and like they were missing out on opportunities back home. From a basement dorm in a town they were beginning to resent, they watched their friends and fellow SPCPA alumni in Hippo Campus play Conan, and resolved to make a change.
“It’s really not a great town,” Hinz says. “There are a lot of people who aren’t excited about their lives. There are a lot of stoners and drugs, and it’s kind of a dead-end place. We came back [to the Twin Cities] for summer, and we were like, ‘Jeez, what are we doing out there?’”
Hinz and Seymour dropped out of college and returned to Minnesota. But before he left, Hinz designed a tee scrawled with the slogan “Olympia Sucks.” “They sold off the racks,” he says. “Everyone feels it, but they just don’t leave.”
I ask Hinz why that mentality was so stifling. “I think it’s immature to not strive to have a good life,” he responds, plainly.
Hinz and Seymour started the Happy Children in 2015, adding local percussion wunderkind Judah McCoy (Bomba de Luz, JUDAHBOY95) on drums. They released a demo in early 2016, capping the year with their debut EP, Small Talk.
But things sputtered from the get-go. Though their live shows turned house parties into boiling abreactions, the band lost and gained momentum in reciprocal waves. Early on, McCoy and Seymour were bloodied in a car accident. Around the release of Small Talk, McCoy had a seizure.
Their highest high came in March 2017, when they were tapped to open for Hippo Campus in First Avenue’s Mainroom. The set was their first taste of local fame, and it should have set them up for other high-profile bookings. Three weeks later, though, McCoy’s girlfriend publicly accused him of domestic violence, posting harrowing images on Instagram of injuries she alleged that he caused, alongside a request for an emergency protection order she filed with a Hennepin County court. (No criminal charges were subsequently filed.) Hinz and Seymour immediately kicked him out of the band, canceling a show scheduled for that same evening and releasing an unambiguous statement on the matter.
“I don’t think there’s any other way it could’ve gone down,” Hinz says. “There’s no way to actually turn that around and pretend it didn’t happen.”
“You gotta condemn that shit,” Seymour adds.
Cutting McCoy out meant restarting the band. His syncopated, proggy drum work was a key element of the Happy Children’s sound, the kick that made songs like “Hail Mexico” and “All Wrong” into madcap contagions. And the band was set to record a debut LP, slated to drop this fall.
Kicked in the ass again, the Happy Children turned to the same mantra that had helped Hinz dispose of mutilated mice a few years prior.
Hinz and Seymour recruited drummer Jon Lindquist and they’re pressing forward, with plans for a new EP before the end of the year. When I close my notebook, they can cease their self-examination, free to return to exorcising their traumas one sweaty gig at a time, THEY HAVE NO POWER emblazoned therapeutically on their chests.
“No matter what happens, it’s still happening,” Seymour says. “We also have no power. Nobody has any power.”
The Happy Children
With: Purple Funk Metropolis
Where: Able Seedhouse + Brewery
When: 6 p.m. Sun. Oct. 1